My highest recommendations, in a nutshell:
- Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
- Starting from Scratch: One Classroom Builds its Own Curriculum by Steven Levy
- Learning in Public by Courtney Martin
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Book 1 by Hayao Miyazaki
- Children’s books
I spent much of 2021 picking up the pieces of my sense of self after a surprisingly difficult time in 2020, when I experienced a crisis around my style of working, communicating and leading, which too often has left others feeling unheard or frustrated—all amidst the pandemic and the racial justice movement.
I did things I’m proud of in 2021: I managed a team for the first time in several years, enrolled in grad school, and did work that should add years to the sustainability of my company’s core product, whose value to the world I believe in deeply. I kept my head on my shoulders more days than not, and mostly didn’t shout at my kids when they were jerks.
It wasn’t as hard as 2020. But it was hard. As I write, my partner has COVID—one of these mild, vaccines-doing-their-thing cases—and I’m sleeping in the office room I’ve felt thankful for every day of the pandemic.
This year, I seemed to be more ready than ever before to quit on a book that isn’t working for me. Maybe social media and the constant low-level emergency have eroded my attention span; maybe I just feel like I have no time to waste. At the same time, I found a lot of books—including several nonfiction books—that I truly loved. I want to issue those books to friends, beaming them urgently like an omnidirectional Care Bear belly blast.
The rise of worldwide fascism, and the solidifying of antisocial destructivism in the US into a major political force, are terrifying trends. But more people in the world have enough food and money to live than any time before in human history, and more brilliant art, theater, and music are being made than ever. It’s still a fascinating world, a world where a curious person will never run out of voices worth seeking out, a world rife with hidden histories, worth turning over rocks for.
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
Wild Seed centers on Anyanwu, a fantastically powerful woman who forms a relationship with a man who is also fantastically powerful. But the natures of their power are very different, in ways that draw qualities of men and women into stark relief, with world-changing consequences.
The scope of this book, and the balanced propulsion of Butler’s prose, are spectacular. When people recommend books like this, they tend to use words like “lyrical”, “sweeping”, “transcendent”. Especially when written about a female writer with a female protagonist, those words suggest that the prose is pretty, but the portrait of the world is in sepia tones; you might think the book is an uplifting cursive Instagram post, in book form. Words like this tell you this is a book a mother can press into her daughter’s hands with a smile and a knowing glance of sisterhood.
That’s ain’t this shit at all! This book takes a blowtorch to its characters’ hearts and to readers’ comfort. Its characters mostly exist in a state of mind-numbing frustration and helplessness; the sense of foreclosed possibilities is heartbreaking. This isn’t the rolling hills of Tuscany, this is the narcissistic boyfriend who inducts your best friend into NXIVM.
And Butler is always two steps ahead, growing the scenario in unpredictable ways and subtly transforming the characters’ relationships. There were times I thought she must be ready to settle down with transforming the dynamic, and let the book coast to a finish with its attitudes locked in. But she never did.
I’m dazzled by the scope of her empathetic imagination. Each time I thought I understood the purpose and message of the book, she pulled back another fold of Anyanwu and Doro’s histories, future, and fucked-up relationship, and found something fresh, which somehow had also been there all along.
Science fiction has always had an intimate relationship with escapism, both embodying it and critiquing it. Wild Seed is part of a long tradition of literature where characters have technical abilities that seem divinely powerful to us lay folk, and yet they are as trapped as we are by resentment, by jealousy, by fear, and by the shackles of history. Part of Butler’s brilliance is the way Doro and Anyanwu’s story mirrors America itself, both liberating and enslaving, transcending and sticking in the parochial mud.
Conversations with friends
Sally Rooney is a “fine” observer of human psychology and interaction, in the sense that her tools are sharp and her use of them precise. Every few pages of this book, I was struck by an insightful and economical turn of phrase relating to how people negotiate with each other and form identities in response to each other.
That sounds like the book is tightly wound, but it’s not; it has a looseness of direction that feels fresh and open, even as its characters’ lives are narrowly constrained. No relationship is one-note; they all have different modes, they all meander, they blossom slowly and retract quickly.
Rooney is a refreshingly frank writer about attraction, romantic belonging, and sexual wanting. That’s why it’s disappointing that her writing about actual sex falls back on convention. She gives detailed descriptions of the combination of desire and alienation the protagonist feels when sex begins, but then turns to general descriptive terms for the sex itself. It’s not that I go looking for this in any book; but everywhere else in the book, Rooney masterfully explores dynamics of imbalanced gender power. These dynamics certainly extend into heterosexual sex itself, but Rooney doesn’t go there.
(Warning: this paragraph gets explicit.) Rooney even suggests that the sex ends in simultaneous orgasm, which is, I’m sorry, something of a patriarchal myth. From what I understand about men, women, and sex, simultaneous orgasm is much rarer than straight men seem to think. I bet nearly all heterosexual sex in the world today ends completely when, and only when, the man comes. (Or as I saw Margaret Cho put it, frankly, in standup: “When the guy comes, IT’S OVER.”) Having an orgasm seems like it would be a colossally big deal to Frances. Does she come? Does it… even occur to her to wonder? Does she perform an audible pseudo-orgasm, which is, let’s face it, a routine aspect of much heterosexual sex? Where does he come? Who cleans it up? If he’s using a condom, where does he throw it away?
It’s not that I demand this level of detail in any literary depiction of sex, but there is rich detail about these characters in every other aspect of their interactions, and it’s strange that not only does Rooney quickly shut the door when they start to hook up, but she gives summaries that seem to me to recapitulate patriarchal assumptions. But maybe Rooney is showing us the world as Frances sees it, with these patriarchal assumptions such a part of the landscape that they bend her perception of reality?
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
This is a famously difficult novel, and I’m not the first to give up after a dozen pages. I’ve enjoyed every Neal Stephenson book I’ve read, but I’ve stuck to the ones written for a popular audience (The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, REAMDE, Seveneves), and haven’t taken a crack at the notoriously challenging doorstops before. Friends assure me that once you get into it, this one is great, but the opening felt so devoid of believable characters and scenarios that I just couldn’t go on.
In addition, I know Stephenson is a genius and all, but I found some of his world-building surprisingly flimsy. It opens with a monk badgering a handyman with outlandish questions about his heathen ways. Even the most zealous believer wouldn’t accost every outsider who crosses his path this way; it just doesn’t seem believable, on its own terms.
I gather that Stephenson holds traditional works of philosophy in high regard, and modeled much of this book after them. I’ve never understood the high regard that many people have for those books. Don’t get me wrong, I love actual philosophy, and philosophical questions. (If we are programmed by evolution to love, is our love meaningful? Can our empathy be hijacked in ways that make us hurt more than help? Is having a coherent political position necessary to taking productive political action? Is consciousness something real, or merely an illusion?) I’ve just found that philosophy books are usually hard to read, and haphazard in their reasoning—and that’s been true for literally thousands of years. Poetry, stories, and plays from 2000 years ago are still compelling, but the philosophical writing really doesn’t hold up. If you took a reasonably smart 9th grader from my high school and inserted them into Plato’s Symposium, they would immediately improve the debate over whether “Love” is a mortal, an immortal, or in between (maybe by inserting a much needed “who cares?”, or maybe by shouting “My god, don’t you assholes enslave people???”).
This book is acclaimed in part for the extent of Stephenson’s linguistic inventiveness. He’s clear at the start that his made-up words are supposed to have been translated from another language… but then he throws in words like “sæcular”. Maybe I need to read the whole book to understand the game he’s playing, but this seems an awful lot like the silly tendency of fantasy writers to use vaguely King James Bible-era English to evoke otherness; c.f. George R. R. R. Martin’s “grand maester” character titles.
This is the same mistake that Aaron Sorkin made in the pilot of The West Wing, where a subplot deals with the “correct” spelling of Muammar Gaddafi’s name. Like many families whose names are in a language with a non-Latin script, Gaddafi’s own family didn’t use a consistent transliteration! It doesn’t make sense to make a big deal of spelling, if the language in question is translated anyway.
People, everywhere, speak to each other in the boring vernacular of their own time, and their own social context. Hear, O Israel: thou shalt not misinterpret failures to fully translate as exotic qualities of the original!
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
I immediately knew this wasn’t for me. I’ve disliked most “comic novels”—I just don’t get the genre.
Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delaney
I started to read this aloud to my partner and found I simply couldn’t speak such awkward sentences. This is a well-regarded science fiction novel, so I’m mystified. Maybe it’s meant to feel like this?
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwen
This book has many fans. The prose flows well, but as with a lot of novels narrowly focused on a family, I had trouble seeing past the confines of their experience. The protagonist is extremely limited, psychologically immature and stuck; I admire the fidelity of that portrait, but I don’t really want to spend a whole book in it.
Matrix by Lauren Groff
I couldn’t get through the first chapter. Of a variety of modern popular fiction prose that’s packed with too many adjectives for my taste; I felt similarly about Middlesex and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
Starting from Scratch: One Classroom Builds its Own Curriculum by Steven Levy
(FYI, this isn’t Steven Levy, the author of Hackers)
A portrait of what education can look like in a suburban public school classroom with an inspired teacher. Not all of Levy’s lessons can be applied everywhere, but every teacher, parent, or leader would benefit from his writing, to absorb his spirit of curiosity, and his passion for students’ making learning their own.
Levy’s approach is to encourage students to ask questions, and then to pick up on the most meaty questions and make these the focus of the classroom for weeks or months.
Not every question supports this sort of inquiry. “A good question,” he writes, “will be challenging to the community at large, no matter what the level of sophistication. It will be a question that is of interest to the teacher as well as the students. It could be asked of people of all ages. It will have entry points for the least and the most academically developed.”
In his teaching, some of these questions have been, what furniture belongs in a classroom? Why do our shoes say which country they were made in? Where did our town get its name? When Levy really wants his students to ask about the new bike path through town, but doesn’t want to feed them that topic, he asks, what is the most significant change my town has seen in my lifetime?
A question about dyeing fabric, for instance, leads to everyone inspecting their garments, writing letters to apparel companies, bringing in someone from the community to teach dyeing, researching the uses of wool in other societies, obtaining samples of raw wool and learning to make it into yarn, and even learning to knit.
Reading through these student-directed journeys was delightful, but sometimes I wanted more detail of how Levy supports the process. He’ll jump forward weeks at a time, from a student’s initial question to reporting what they concluded, leaving out how he set them up to perform this research, and how he coached them through it. Much of the most impressive student work you hear about in headlines involved a heavy dose of adults doing most of the work; I’m not accusing Levy of this, but I wish he would peel back the curtain more on how the Great Oz performs his miracles. Does he schedule daily trips to the library to perform research? Does he have a system for forming students into groups and assigning them specific research tasks, to make sure all of the learning isn’t done by the most capable student? Did this flexible curriculum require many more hours of daily preparation than a typical curriculum would?
Towards the end of the book, Levy does pause to acknowledge how much he has glossed over in the telling. I appreciate, in particular, his candor that not every student responds well to his style, and that he wouldn’t try structuring all of school this way. Even he often has to threaten and punish students in order to get compliance, and he concedes that his teaching day includes plenty of traditional training in the basics. If this sort of constructivist, discovery-led education is to scale—as I dearly hope it can—we need the full picture of what it takes to support it.
If every student had a Mr. Levy every year, the world would be a much better place. The question is, how can we get there?
Learning in Public by Courtney Martin
A few years ago, my sister, who lives in Oakland, mentioned that she had become friends with the family that lived on the other side of her apartment building’s backyard fence. It turned out I knew the mom, whom I went to college with. Then it turned out she was a writer, and was working on essays about education, racial integration, and ways of being in urban community that connect and sustain, instead of colonizing and displacing.
All of which is to say that Courtney Martin’s writing is extremely my shit. And when I learned about this book, which takes as a jumping-off point Martin’s process of deciding to enroll her White child in the Oakland Public Schools elementary a few blocks away—imperfect, wonderful, mostly Black, “up and coming”, ignored by the “which are the very best schools” grapevine—it felt like she had reached into me and pulled out the book I most wanted to exist.
This is a well-researched nonfiction book, but it feels organic and freeform. Martin’s writing is erudite and casual, straightforward and also occasionally impressionistic. It’s much more lucid than most of the strained texts I’ve been reading for my grad school education program, but no less dense with ideas. Martin has a clear motivation to be the change she wants to see in the world, but also knows the fraught history of condescending and self-congratulatory White interventions in Black lives, and tries to learn what she’s doing from within common community, rather than descending with pre-set certainties. At times, she’s almost recursively self-doubting, but actual relationships ground her, and keep her compass oriented.
Some of Martin’s observations and reflections felt so precise that they burrowed right through me. After a private school mom casually mentions their gala raising over $100k, Martin chafes:
One of the unanticipated effects of being part of the Emerson community, for me, is feeling sort of sideswiped by casual comments. Things that would barely have made me pause before, and likely only in an analytical way, now give me stomachaches. One of the great losses that comes from privilege is having a range of experience so narrow that it makes you emotionally bullish. Or as Cathy Park Hong describes it in her beautiful book Minor Feelings, “Innocence is both a privilege and a cognitive handicap, a sheltered unknowingness.” Stupidity born of insulation can make others feel unconsidered, unknown. Because you don’t, in fact, know. You have never had to know. And the thing about knowing—not in a bookish way but in a lived way—is that it’s edifying. It’s not just that it makes you kinder, more aware of how a number like that might land, though it does do that; it’s that it makes you more connected. It right-sizes your problems and pleasures, it makes you pissed off with your community rather than on behalf of yourself. There’s a relief in knowing. The relief sits next to the sting.
I’ve reread that passage half a dozen times, and I’m still finding more to chew on.
I did find myself disagreeing, a few times, when Martin echoed progressive accusations of White parents; for instance, that parents who avoid a school because they perceive it as chaotic or disorganized are applying a wrongful cultural filter. When Martin shows up at a public school for a scheduled school tour that has been cancelled without letting anyone know, she writes, “It’s sinking in: schools like Emerson, like Piedmont Avenue, feel unorganized to parents like me because they don’t prioritize us or speak our language… We have come to equate respect with efficiency.”
I appreciate that we shouldn’t jump to summoning the manager whenever a moment of our time is wasted, but I do think this sort of inconvenience is inconsiderate, and I think it frustrates Black parents just as much as White parents. Public institutions, on all levels, are simply held to a lower standard when they serve a less politically and economically powerful segment of the electorate. Yes, I should remind myself that the world doesn’t revolve around me. But I am ready to fight for the day when every Black parent, from Oakland to Boston, can get pissed off when their kid’s school drops the ball, and make someone worry about losing their job.
While my partner and I have sent our two kids to public or charter schools since Kindergarten, we did not send them to the default elementary school they were zoned for in Brooklyn. By some measures, we did more to entertain this possibility than other White, middle-class gentrifiers; I visited the school and many others, and we ultimately chose a “diverse by design” school that was farther away and which featured IEP student integrated classrooms. But of course we could have done more to be a force for integration.
I think it’s important not to assume there’s some bright line that we are on the right side of. There are scores of struggling schools that white middle-class families like mine could send our kids to and thereby help take a significant step towards integration, but never would. Nearly every parent who criticizes someone else for sending their kid to a higher socio-economic status (SES) school than they might otherwise, has also sent their own kids to a higher SES school then they themselves might otherwise.
Martin doesn’t quite name that form of hypocrisy, but she identifies many others, and constantly pushes herself to avoid aiming for that familiar White place of self-satisfaction where we reduce the behemoth of systemic racism to a story about ourselves being exceptional. Her core plea isn’t for flagellation or sacrifice, it’s for being neighbors, and experiencing our society’s institutions and tribulations together, not as charity but because that’s what neighbors do.
In Search of Deeper Learning by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine
Whereas Robert Pondiscio’s book about Success Academy (see below) deals with the question of what makes schools fundamentally functional or disfunctional, Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine’s book looks instead at existing functional schools, and asks if the education they provide is actually the one we want.
In their telling, even ostensibly successful students graduate high school with only a shallow connection to the disciplines they have spent the previous 13 years studying. In his public speaking, Mehta illustrates this with a participatory exercise. He starts by asking the audience members to think of a practice they have learned intimately over many years; then he follows by asking if that engagement primarily took place inside the school day, or outside. Generally, 90% of people name something that they primarily learned outside of the school day, even though the typical American spends something like 14,000 hours in classroom instruction by the end of high school.
For Mehta, this suggests that something is wrong: how can all of those years leave so little lasting impact? What are our extracurricular pursuits getting right, that school is getting wrong? Mehta and Fine want education to feel less like a list of things a student needs to know, and more like induction into various passionate, long-term, and personally resonant practices. “Deeper learning” is an amorphous term that is defined differently by different people, but Mehta and Fine’s definition speaks to me.
I had Mehta as a professor this semester, and at first I resisted the “deeper learning” term. How is it different than, just, “good teaching”? But I came to understand that there are many kinds of good teaching, and some of those are working better than others in our school system. “Deeper learning” is not a substitute for what’s working well now, it’s a direction to work towards—one that involves a bit less focus on everyone knowing a little bit about everything, and more focus on students finding particular projects and disciplines that speak meaningfully to them.
We already intuitively know how much more valuable this would be. We will enthusiastically pass around a news story about, say, a middle schooler who was upset about lead in her town’s water, researched relevant law and science, and organized her peers to test water and write letters. We don’t ask, “But what about her reading comprehension scores?”
Still, I wonder if Mehta and Fine’s starting point—high schools that are already basically “working”—makes them underestimate preparatory work that has to be done to get students to that point, and the size of the gap in basic academic functionality that’s at play with many underserved students. I spent hundreds of hours reading books to each of my children, to turn them into lovers of books; that might have had a “deeper” result, but it sure looked like rote learning along the way. Is there room for this sort of mundane reality in Mehta and Fine’s model?
As for the academic gaps, I have seen these get in the way of deep lesson plans in many classrooms I’ve observed. If schools just assume the basics will be filled in in the course of project work, I worry they will be leaving their students without crucial capabilities. Almost all of the classrooms that Mehta and Fine praise are ones that reflect some sort of filtering—either they are an elective only open to students who have passed earlier classes and opt for more challenge, or they are at a school that requires families to specifically apply, or they are in a wealthy suburb. The epicenter of the “deeper learning” movement might be the High Tech High charter school network in San Diego, which Fine works for; but even High Tech High has to spend part of each day in traditional, non-deep instruction in the three R’s. I’m left wondering, what might “deeper learning” look like if it were truly designed for all children?
How the Other Half Learns by Robert Pondiscio
Pondiscio spent a year inside Success Academy, the charter school network in New York City. Success Academy is controversial for many reasons, and Pondiscio compares it to a Rorschach test: when people look at it, they tend to see what they want to see.
To continue with that metaphor, you might ask of a book like this, is it primarily showing us what the author sees, at first glance? Or does the author try to withhold interpretation, and report what they encounter without regard to which conclusions it might support?
Of course, it’s foolish to pretend a document that claims to postpone judgment is without its own lens. All artists are editors, necessarily leaving out far more than they include; the picture they paint can never be truly raw, and shouldn’t be expected to be. But a good reporter on a controversial subject should do their best to at least try to forget to keep score, and stay open to discovering something new.
Pondiscio is such a reporter. He presents inspiring accounts of families determined to take advantage of the path to a better life that Success Academy offers; and he also presents troubling accounts of overzealous punishment and control. One one page, he’ll witness teachers applying rules in ways that are effective, clear, and warm; on the next page, children will be screaming and crying, or turned away at the school doors for minor dress code infractions.
This isn’t just a superficial attempt at balance. Pondiscio is ready to be surprised, and willing to grapple in front of the reader with various interpretations of what he’s seeing. On social media, I find Pondiscio kinda cranky; I constantly disagree with his conservative takes. But throughout this book, in his centering the day-to-day experiences of students, staff, and parents, he gained my trust.
I gather that Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Success Academy, wasn’t pleased with Pondiscio’s findings; one of his conclusions is that Success does indeed “cream the crop”, as its critics contend, by filtering for more academically promising students. In his telling, this operates via two mechanisms: a long series of specific hoops that parents must jump through in the enrollment process, which is ostensibly open to all but designed to be navigable only by the most committed families; and the strict enforcement of Success Academy’s rules and norms, which less capable or dedicated students—and their families—find so exhausting and demoralizing that they leave.
Pondiscio is clear that these policies exclude many families. But he is eloquent in his ultimate support for this exclusion. As he sees it, Moskowitz hasn’t created a model of school that could really be scaled to all students. Instead, she has created a sort of private school for poor and working class families, one that is open to those willing to work hard so their children can have the sort of focused environment, surrounded by committed peers, that wealthy families take for granted. Our society allows the wealthy to pay (through private school or suburban house prices) for classrooms that won’t be derailed by peer distress and distraction. Why, Pondiscio asks, should we deny poor and working class families—and only those families—the right to opt into the same?
The issue of classroom chaos is real. In many schools with primarily poor students, I’ve seen energetic, well-intentioned schoolteachers unable to carve 10 solid minutes of “time on task” out of each 45 minute period, due to never-ending disruptions. But in my graduate school studies, I haven’t found much acknowledgment of the importance of classroom focus, or of the pernicious effects when focus is impossible. It’s easy to find academic papers that plead for us to fully consider the humanity of the disruptors, and not to rush to punish them. I absolutely agree. But it’s much harder to find scholarly work that pays this quality of attention to the quiet kid in the corner, willing to do her work but starving for attention from an overwhelmed and overburdened teacher.
I recently asked such a student, in a math class I was observing, if I could take a peek at her worksheet. She was learning to distribute a multiple into the factors inside parentheses. She had done the first few problems impeccably, but started to make errors halfway down the page, and left the last few problems blank. I coached her for a minute, and she realized what she had done wrong, but didn’t move to correct it. I asked, “Do you want to try it again, now that you understand that piece?” She just shrugged. Half the students in the class were talking; several were out of their seats, chasing each other or throwing things. The teacher looked like she was considering a career change. If this student’s parents saw this scene, and demanded that classroom management rules be instituted and enforced, would the academics around me really judge them as on the side of the oppressors?
Rules aren’t a panacea. Of course, we should try to find third ways, that bring all school staff, students, and parents into productive relationship. Rules, for rules’ sake, or for the purpose of exclusion, are oppressive; lord knows I railed against them as a schoolchild when I found them arbitrary. But at the end of the day, as a society, we can either treat it as acceptable that the student I described above gets no chance to learn, or as unacceptable. If it’s unacceptable, if it really is unacceptable, then that is going to require rules where enough disruption can eventually get a student kicked out of class. What is the justification for forcing her to be surrounded by an environment where it’s impossible to learn? Equity? For whom?
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil
Cathy O’Neil’s thesis is that our economy, politics and society are getting hooked on mathematical models—models that are fare more simplistic and flawed than we assume. These models are billed as a way to transcend human bias, but more often they are instead imprinted by preexisting inequities and assumptions, in patterns which cause all sorts of unintended consequences.
O’Neil’s argument is especially effective when it comes to the hypocrisy surrounding how these data models are handled in politics. In one example, O’Neil tells of a teacher who was fired because a mathematical model said she was extremely ineffective. Then O’Neil presents evidence that the teacher was probably the victim of faked test scores from her students’ previous school, which incorrectly made her teaching appear useless. And then O’Neil lands an even more powerful argument, by comparing the no-excuses language that education reformers use when dismissing teachers’ concerns, with the self-serving deflection they use when faced with the poor performance of their own models.
This is not just a critique of policy, but one of society. Why are only certain little lies “white”? Why do we revel in some people’s receiving a “rude awakening,” while we happily entertain endless excuses for others’ so-called innocent mistakes? Why do we insist that harsh technocratic standards apply only to some, while others—like the authors of these clumsy, arbitrary, and opaque policies—get a pass for their poor performance?
And O’Neil is scathing in demonstrating just how poor that performance is. Discussing US News and World Report’s ranking of colleges, she goes down the list of the inputs they use and points out that essentially none of them have a meaningful relationship with the quality of students’ academic experience. Of course they don’t—quality of academic experience is incredibly hard to measure! So instead, we measure what we can measure, no matter how meaningless, and proceed with as though we had far more solid data.
Not only does this make the results meaningless, it does something worse: it provides incentive to game the system. One downstream impact of the college ranking formula is that colleges have started rejecting applicants whom they deem overqualified, reasoning that they are likely to ultimately enroll elsewhere, which would bring down the college’s percentage of accepted applicants who choose to enroll. Another even more disturbing phenomenon, according to O’Neil, is that colleges are incentivized to encourage as many students possible to apply—even if the college is sure to reject them—because that makes the college appear more selective. O’Neil is unflinching in itemizing these sorts of perverse consequences.
But when O’Neil calls for regulatory solutions to the effects of mathematical models, I wished she would keep unintended consequences in mind. She rails against modern employee scheduling software, for example, which makes work schedules unpredictable and disruptive to family life (and to workers’ attempts to take college classes on the side). But it’s not clear to me why these models deserve condemnation alongside O’Neil’s other targets. She doesn’t accuse them of promising more than they deliver, or of encoding bias. It might be that companies are willing to pay a premium if workers accept this inconsistency; or it might be that this acts as an end-run around the minimum wage, taking in planning time what cannot be taken in dollars. In any case, it’s not clear on this evidence alone that it would be an improvement for Congress to regulate scheduling software, as O’Neil calls for; this seems like just the sort of thing that a clumsy regulatory solution could make worse, by doing little to shift overall incentives and instead just creating friction in the form of workarounds and hacks. Her overall thesis is that that seemingly benign technocratic systems hide unaccountable forms of harm, but O’Neil doesn’t notice when her own prescriptions might do so as well.
Overall, this is lucid explanatory writing, paired with a compelling polemical call to slam the brakes on our embrace of mathematical models in social policy, and to approach it more like the way we approach human genetic experimentation—with constant awareness of history’s horrors, and open processes of ethical consideration.
Scrappy Circuits by Michael Carroll
I used to run a creative technology afterschool program in Brooklyn where we used simple, cheap components—coin cell batteries, LEDs, wires, binder clips, paper clips, and cardboard—to explore circuitry and to create interactive quizzes and greeting cards.
Scrappy Circuits is very much in that vein, and I loved the approach here, even if this book doesn’t quite make for a turnkey solution. It is sometimes difficult to parse the text and visuals; I would have preferred less use of photography and more drawings, which might distort proportions in service to clarity. I also would have loved a specific project that could use several of these components, and really show off what they enable.
How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
Ibram Kendi is a strident and unflinching critic of systemic racism in his public speaking and opinion writing, and that has led people to suppose that this book is a pointed diatribe that comes from a place of utter confidence, and which represents the consensus position of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it’s a more surprising, personal, and curious document than that.
Kendi shapes each chapter around an evolution in his own thinking, from simplistic assumptions to a more complex understanding. That might involve, say, a wise friend or fellow activist challenging him to discard his previous Black nationalist ideas, and replace them with a more humble sense of his place in the wider struggles for universal human dignity and power.
It’s hard to summarize, because Kendi’s interests are so wide-ranging. Some activist writers are laser-focused on a set of changes to culture and policy; Kendi’s focus is more scattered, with an unpredictable mix of digressions that don’t fit neatly together. I found myself disagreeing with him often. But just as often I found myself thinking in new ways, about some aspect of race, racism, America, humanity, gender, class, or myself. Kendi is a curious, hungry thinker, not afraid to take on a stance with full confidence, and then to reverse himself and say why he was so mistaken before.
In some areas, however, his thinking repeats conventional mistakes. The policy area I know best is education, and to my frustration, Kendi echoes the assumption that racial disparities are primarily a function of poor funding, and is dismissive of integration as a valuable tool in improving the prospects for Black children. He sees no reason why proximity to White kids should be necessary for Black kids to excel, and his overall feeling on the so-called “Black-White test score gap” is that there is racism involved in looking at the situation that way in the first place.
This accords with the view that there is no “pipeline problem” (see, for example, this argument) when it comes to preparing a diverse range of people for high-level academic study and high-paying jobs. The worry is that companies are shrugging away diversity concerns by claiming there are too few qualified Black applicants, instead of reconsidering their procedures.
But conversely, the “there is no pipeline problem” attitude implies that we need only focus on the gatekeepers and on adults’ bias to achieve equity. But systemic racism is a more pervasive and intractable problem than that. It includes both public and private institutions, both policy and culture, both financial wealth and non-financial wealth. I’ve been in Kindergarten classrooms where some children are doing written subtraction problems, and other children still can’t count physical objects with one-to-one correspondence, and the differences break down along lines of race and class. I want us to refuse to accept that disparity and dedicate ourselves to eliminating it, while Kendi’s main complaint is that we are using it as an excuse to keep the gates closed.
In any case, there is no question that Kendi is focused on impact and consequences, and not on personal bias. People who haven’t actually read this book might be surprised how little Kendi begrudges White people for having personally racist assumptions, or for holding positions of power. He is interested in what people do, much more than in representation; he knows that the power structure is more ready to install a politically conventional Black District Attorney or Chief of Police than they are ready to fundamentally upend our approach to policing and imprisonment.
One of Kendi’s overall points is that the label of “racist” should not be ascribed to people and rules based on their stated intentions, but rather on their actual impact. Some critics have mocked this, pointing out that it implies that there’s no way to know if some policies are racist or not until we have had many years to measure its impact. But I see this as an example of the depth of Kendi’s commitment to Black liberation, and human liberation; he is open to just about any policy proposal, if there is a serious case to be made that it will reduce racial disparities in the long term, and if we are committed to assessing its outcome and discarding it if it turns out to further racial oppression, directly or indirectly.
On these grounds, centrists and conservatives might find a surprising amount of accord in Kendi’s views. You could make the case that it is anti-racist, per Kendi’s definition, to reduce the regulatory costs of starting small businesses; to ease licensing for working-class professions like hairdressing and plumbing; to require greater transparency in college admissions and hiring processes; and maybe even to make it easier to form charter schools.
It could also improve Black power for police to investigate violence against Black people as aggressively as they investigate violence against White people. There is ample evidence that police simply devote fewer hours for Black victims, which leads to more retaliatory violence and building of protective alliances—dismissed as “gangs” by those who would never need them. This diverts and undermines Black men’s lives in all sorts of destructive ways.
As with the term intersectionality, Kendi’s “anti-racism” has been popularly assumed to be a fundamentally radical left philosophy. But both could also be understood as humanist reactions to the ideological blind spots of radical movements.
The Meaning of Mariah by Mariah Carey
The queen has had a painful life, and she has clearly done a lot of therapy. Given her trials, it wouldn’t be a surprise if she hated herself and all those around her. But she is astonishingly clear on who is to blame for the various abuse she was subjected to in her young life, and she has worked to forgive herself and those family members who did their imperfect best—and she has written off those who did not, who refused to ever take responsibility, and closed the door on those relationships. She is able to speak from honest rage, while also keeping humble and acknowledging her mistakes.
This woman is wise. She even seems to understand that Derek Jeter is a great hookup to cheat on your husband with, but far too boring to actually, like, move in with!
I’m struck by a pattern I have observed in successful people’s memoirs: the way their lives are bifurcated into before and after their careers gained traction. Mariah-the-child felt like an outcast, a lost person whose family members were all broken and couldn’t protect or nurture her. But Mariah-the-studio-musician, even when she is broke and couch surfing, is locked into a certainty that she will succeed.
How did this transition happen? I wish she were able to say. Did she make the switch consciously, or did she stumble across this mindset and hold on tight? Once she finds this certainty, it pulls her through all sorts of obstacles, and past a parade of mediocre men. How can others find some of that chutzpah?
As always with ghostwritten memoirs, I wish they were more forthright about the authorship. This clearly has a ton of Mariah’s authentic voice—there are half a dozen “dahling”’s, probably only a fraction of the number there were before editing! But a book like this is a collaboration, and, as with Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, understanding the nature of that collaboration helps make the reading experience richer.
Space: a Visual Encyclopedia by DK Publishing
This is the first of several space-related books I read as background for a curriculum-writing project.
I hesitate to include this because it’s a reference book, not really something you read from start to end. It doesn’t go deep into any particular subject, but it’s very browsable and offers good summaries of dozens of topics, presented in the attractive, clear way that DK Publishing does so well.
I don’t really know how you use a book like this, but in the right place at the right time, it could change a child’s life.
Exoplanets by Chris Kitchin
An erudite science book, written for a popular audience. Dense but very readable; Kitchin writes in a straightforward, accessible style. I only skimmed the book, but I liked what I read.
Essentialism by Greg McKeown
There’s a scene in the British comedy sitcom Absolutely Fabulous where the fashionista lead characters remember visiting a couple who identify as “minimalists.” In a flashback, they go to the minimalists’ home for dinner and bring a bottle of wine, which the minimalists recoil from, not knowing what to do with such a disturbance to their austere absence of objects.
Fast-forward to the present: these old friends are coming to visit, for the first time in ages. The doorbell rings, and in they come. Except that in the intervening years, they’ve had a baby! Instead of having no objects whatever, the couple is a whirlwind of strollers, baby carriers, stuffed animals, blankets, pacifiers, wipes, an assortment of breast pumps and bottles, and endless diapers.
The lesson is that minimalism is a philosophy at odds with real life. It can exist only in artificial pockets, isolated from the labor, commerce, and detritus that keeps the human project going. You can build yourself an impeccable yoga studio without a misplaced thread, but somewhere there is a factory full of harried women working their fingers to the bone sewing your yoga pants, surrounded by piles of trimmings and Band-Aids.
I bring this up to warn you that Greg McKeown’s Essentialism takes only a shallow look at the full breadth of work that needs to be done to sustain a working adult existence. It is a blissfully ignorant perspective on what a person might choose to focus on in any given day, presuming that the reader is the type of powerful man for whom taking care of the business of everyday life is entirely a matter of choice.
For example, McKeown encourages the reader to cancel meetings, so as to make time to participate in a child’s life. Who, you might ask, has been responsible for keeping this child alive, in the meantime? Certainly not the reader, who McKeown doesn’t imagine might be a mother who already provides most of her family’s childcare, or a night shift worker who has to sleep all afternoon, or even, I don’t know, someone who would get fired if they cancelled meetings.
So, it never even occurred to McKeown that the reader might be a blue collar worker. That’s fucked up. And, that said, the question is: can advice like this, aimed at the privileged, have value for everyone else?
Years ago, self-help writer James Altucher wrote about talking your way into events. The piece elicited accusations—correctly—that he was ignoring the ways he was using privilege, using the fear of offending a powerful White man, to bully and inconvenience workers.
And yet… the mindset that Altucher recommends, assuming that you belong in any room you choose to enter—and that you have the power to convince others that you belong—is valuable for everyone. I have tried to teach it to my daughters, and to children of all ages who I’ve taught. It’s often the best strategy to be optimistic that unfair discrimination won’t stop you, even as you know full well that it exists.
There’s more that McKeown gets wrong. He lionizes the wisdom of Steve Jobs, for example, while never addressing just how abysmally Jobs failed at the essential role of parenting his own children. Did Jobs need a greater emphasis on McKeownian “essentialism”? Or did he need less? Would McKeown’s ideas have helped Jobs be a more of a whole person, or was Jobs’s smug story about his own essentialist focus part of the problem, a crucial component of his destructive compartmentalization? Rather than grapple with the reality of Jobs’s toxic essentialism, McKeown instead embraces a fantasy version where the damage doesn’t exist. If a philosopher requires such a simplistic retcon of even their own chosen examples, what is their philosophy worth?
But while this book is not a serious intellectual contribution to trying to find one’s path in life, it is a reminder of how easy it is to be distracted from what matters, and how helpful it can be to practice saying no to things that seem attractive—but aren’t essential. In this way, it is an elaboration of one of my favorite essays, Paul Graham’s “The Acceleration of Addictiveness,” which argues that in the modern era, there is so much high-quality distraction that the only way to get real work done is to be the one super weird person who says no to the good times, and holds out for something great that only they can build.
How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen
One test of a business book is: is it articulating principles that it sticks to as it explores wide-ranging examples? Or, does it apply its supposed rules inconsistently, assuming that examples of success bear out its theories, awkwardly retrofitting each example of success or failure so that it only shakily matches the book’s story?
You can see where I’m going with this. Christensen is known for his theory of “disruption”, and for his teaching at Harvard Business School. He bills this book as a departure from his normal topics, which makes it a bit strange that he spends so much time on fairly routine, Gladwellian arguments about what makes some businesses succeed, but others fail. Apparently it’s important not to just chase near-terms profitability, as Blockbuster did. Neither should you just make more of what seems to be selling now, as Honda did when they expanded sales of small motorbikes into the American market.
Oh no, wait, Christensen actually says you should do what Honda did! Do chase short term profits, because that shows you’re serving real customers. What not to do… OK, Christiensen says you shouldn’t do what Motorola did with the Iridium satellite phone project, where they invested a lot of time and money on a single conviction that there wasn’t ample immediate evidence for. You know, like the mistake Netflix made in investing in streaming and its own studio. OH NO, wait, you should do that! In fact, having a single conviction that there isn’t ample immediate evidence for is, per Christiensen, “the most important thing [you] will ever have discovered.”
If you’re having the sneaking suspicion that Christiensen’s actual top recommendation is that you assume business gurus like him have some sort of transcendent wisdom, and not quibble with the details, you’re on the right track. Maybe the real lesson here is that if you believe faithfully enough, and you have the right imprimatur, you don’t need to square your thinking with counterexamples, even if they’re inadvertently provided by you in your own book.
It’s hard to avoid noticing the position of privilege Christensen is coming from, and how little he notices that privilege, let alone looks for it actively. On the title page of his section on finding happiness in relationships, he quotes Thomas Jefferson’s saying “The happiest moments of my life have been the few which I have passed at home in the bosom of my family.”
Jefferson, of course, enslaved his own children. That alone doesn’t make his quote valueless, and there is a fascinating discussion to be had about how Jefferson mentally squared social expectations, ambition, and family, including some limited acts of compassion for his enslaved children. But Christensen seems oblivious to complexities this rich; he’s not even trying to scratch beneath the surface of his own assumptions. As far as he’s concerned, if a powerful person makes a claim, that power can only be a testimony to its wisdom, not a reason to ask if that claim is blind to half of the picture.
Elsewhere, I did appreciate Christensen’s real talk about parenting, and his analogy to running a company. In both cases, he emphasizes, it’s vital that you call out behavior that supports, or violates, the culture you want to build, more or less every time it occurs. He acknowledges that doing this is hard, and that it’s going to seem awkward.
What’s refreshing is that this isn’t just generic advice about being present, or accepting what you can’t control, or trying to do less. In Christensen’s eyes, there is no shortcut: to guide your kids so they are empowered, you’ll have to work your ass off on it, watch closely, and change what you’re doing when it’s not working. At any point, when they break with your values, it’s easiest to let it slide; but that only makes it harder to assert those values next time. He draws an analogy to people who’ve let bad situations compound out of reluctance to face the music, such as the infamous trader who brought down the Barings Bank when he started with a few bad trades, then kept doubling down in an attempt to secretly dig his way out.
As for individuals’ personal “culture”, Christensen wants the reader to identify a core purpose, a fiercely held vision of who you want to become and how you want to affect the world. “The world will not tell you what your purpose is,” he warns. “You have to tell the world.”
Maybe. I can’t help but wonder if Christensen’s call for a single unifying belief has more to do with his own devout religion than with empirical usefulness. Here is someone who has seized on a supernatural explanation for the cosmos, and built his life around it; it’s not surprising that he sees life’s purpose through the lens of revelation. Like many people of faith, he doubts that a moral and purposeful life can be lived without selecting one narrow interpretation of one’s place in the world; to believers like Christensen, the cosmopolitan, internationalist, humanist, atheist outlook offers only chaos and eternal disorientation.
Count me on team cosmopolitan.
The Charisma Machine by Morgan Ames
An opinionated history of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, which grew out of the MIT Media Lab, where I used to work.
From the outset, Ames takes to task the thinkers and visionaries involved, with a withering denunciation of their assumptions and theories. I think I’m more or less the type of person Ames is criticizing, and I found myself feeling defensive, and wanting to stand up for the OLPC’s promoters.
Ames is absolutely right to call the project’s promoters pompous, and to hold their grandiose promises up against the project’s more humble results. It certainly took a long time for the project to make concrete progress, and the developing world was never sweepingly transformed by these machines.
But is that really so bad? Don’t movements that seek to change the world need visions that operate as much from faith, as from prudence? The writers of Star Trek, for example, predicted a future where humans would interact with computers through voice, touchscreens, and portable tablets; they also predicted a future where high-powered workplaces would be racially integrated, and where racial identity, national origin and ethnic culture would operate within a broader context of human cooperation. Some of this has come to pass and some is still in progress, but was it foolish to promise this future merely because there wasn’t a reliable plan to achieve it? My own tendency is to be humble and self-deprecating when selling my work to others; but is that really better? Should I raise my daughters to shy away from making grand vows for change?
Ames invites the reader to view OLPC through the lens of gender norms, which illuminates some of the powerful forces at work under the surface. She lays a stinging charge at the feet of OLPC, and the proponents of constructionism at the Media Lab: that they are fixated on what she calls “the myth of the technically precocious boy”, a boy who needs only be given the chance to seize control of his own digital exploration, and will then pursue computer creativity obsessively and under his own steam.
I should pause to make clear that I am precisely such a technically precocious boy, and Ames’s description matches me perfectly. I too came to the MIT Media Lab in large part because I wanted to offer all children the chance to dive obsessively into creative computer programming, as I did as an elementary school student in the 1980s using Apple II computers, the BASIC programming language, and the Logo language developed by Papert, Cynthia Solomon, and others at MIT. You could trace my work back to the obsessive creators of Logo in the Apple computer, and back further to the original computer hackers at MIT, and back further to Alan Turing. It would be a tour of mostly men (though that’s certainly not all—in particular, I wish Solomon were recognized for her huge role!).
So it’s certainly true that the model of the technically precocious boy was an anchor for the OLPC’s design. But that model was applied to a much broader vision, with the assumption that given the right opportunities and deliberate inclusion, girls too could, and would, obsess over computer creativity. It would be better if there had been an equal number of technically precocious girls in that generation of computer visionaries; but given that there weren’t, shouldn’t we try to open the same doors for them that were opened for boys? Wasn’t OLPC an effort to close this gap, if not completely, then at least with a dramatic step forward?
I sometimes worry that in our analysis of existing social patterns, we risk setting what we see in stone. Ames is dismissive of play as an educational technique and goal that constructionists champion, and paints a portrait of play that requires privilege and entitlement. But if we look at children with the assumption that they have as much—or more—to teach us as we have to teach them, I think they show us that play truly is a universal impulse of childhood. Boys and girls alike role-play extensively in childhood, across cultures; children do seem universally programmed to use play to learn, emulate, imagine, and build mental systems of meaning. I’m sure that in creating tools designed for particular modes of play, we impose our own assumptions on children. But the nature of tools designed for play is that they invite the unexpected: they carve out realms where children can explore, they don’t merely hand children these explorations on a platter. Far from imposing the ideal of the technically precocious boy, constructionist projects like OLPC attempt to invite children’s agency—the sort of bottom-up agency that Ames seems to wish to see.
I see OLPC has having failed in a few ways, and succeeded in others. It assumed, wrongly, that computers in the near future would be primarily used as tools, rather than as entertainment. In the 21st century’s market-driven race for eyeballs, well-intentioned creative apps face long odds against the attention industry’s weapons of mass destruction. I pine for the vision of Seymour Papert and Alan Kay, of a computer as something that enables its user to “think about thinking”, a sort of meta-tool that you build and rebuild, even as you use it to build other things. The fact that my own children use computers so much, but use them creatively so seldom, is a testament to the changing terrain that made this aspect of OLPC’s founders’ vision more of a challenge than they realized.
Ames mentions that in her observations in Paraguay, only about forty OLPC-using children per thousand seem to have developed this sort of creative relationship. But while Ames means this figure as a condemnation, I long to know more about that 4%. The odds against creative computing are long, but they are not insurmountable. Even in deeply flawed tools, there can be enough to spark a cycle of imaginative play and discovery. Can we learn from this 4%, and from adjacent children who do not fall into extended creative play, in order to reinvent our tools and processes, and expand these numbers?
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (books 1–5) by Hayao Miyazaki
Around 1993, when I was entering high school, I stumbled upon a curious comic, newly translated into English: issue one of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, written and drawn by Hayao Miyazaki, a name I’d never heard of. The story followed a young woman, heir to a tiny but proudly independent nation; she is precocious, loyal, rulebreaking, and so generous that she transcends boundaries that confine others. The pencil-only art was mesmerizing, reminiscent of the elusive French artist/writer Moebius.
(In fact, the English publishers had arranged for Miyazaki and Moebius to meet, for the first time; the two became friends, and Moebius even named his daughter Nausicaä!)
Miyazaki worked on Nausicaä, singlehandedly, on and off throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. But I wouldn’t hear Miyazaki’s name again until Disney distributed an English dubbed version of his 1997 film Princess Mononoke, which has much in common with Nausicaä. Mononoke further develops Nausicaä’s themes of human-caused ecological disaster, communion with nature, strength through harmony, and authority gained by example rather than by charisma. In the meantime, Miyazaki had founded a studio, Studio Ghibli, on the strength of Nausicaä’s success as a manga and a feature film, and he had also designed, directed and partially written the masterpieces My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Miyazaki’s films and manga have many common themes and elements, including an intricate focus on the mechanics of flight, and the difficulty for adults in seeing their children grow into independence. Miyazaki’s father was the director of the Miyazaki Airplane company, which produced aircraft parts for Japan’s military, and in Nausicaä and other Miyazaki films, there are dozens of types of artificial and natural aircraft, with distinct strengths and limitations; this has been echoed in Kiki, Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle, and The Wind Rises.
So Nausicaä, the manga, was not only the foundational commercial success of Studio Ghibli, but the foundational thematic work, and I have been meaning to read the whole 1000-page series for years. It is both a relaxing read and a challenging one. The pages go quickly; many have little or no dialogue, and center on action mechanics and observation. Most of the time, Miyazaki’s visual storytelling is brilliant and flows naturally, shifting from tight to long focus, showing aerial reversals and integrating character interaction into the visual space; I’ve never seen so much relative motion communicated on a page. But in the immense complexity of the scenarios, there were times where I lost the thread of what was happening; Miyazaki’s reliance on pencil limits his ability to vary line width, and it is sometimes hard to distinguish foreground from background.
I also wrestled some with Nausicaä as a character. I have an aversion to the “Mary Sue” trope, the chosen-one hero who is naturally gifted, effectively impermeable, and destined to be a savior. And indeed, Nausicaä is the subject of a prophecy, and everyone she encounters becomes in awe of her. What saves this character from cliché is that you can see the mechanics of her charisma: she earns loyalty through her unshakeable generosity, she acts courageously because her values compel her forward, and she transcends the bounds of war because she always offers value to those around her, be they friend, foe, or monster. Most importantly, Nausicaä’s talent is not innate, but teachable; through knowing her, other characters learn to steady their fears and focus their generosity, to lifesaving effect.
This blend of incredible competence with virtuous insight reminded me of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, and it turns out that Miyazaki is a huge fan of them, and considers them an influence on Nausicaä. Le Guin revived her work on Earthsea during the same period that Miyazaki was working on Nausicaä, and it’s fun to imagine Miyazaki reading her 1990 revisionist feminist Earthsea sequel Tehanu, which just might have influenced how he wraps up Nausicaä’s journey.
Book 1: highest recommendation; Books 2–5: highly recommended.
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
Nick Drnaso starts with a few characters working through tragedy, and slowly pulls in fundamental questions about how identity, purpose, and belief are being misshaped in our age of abundant information.
With an open market on broadcasting and attention, timeless meaning is at our fingertips, but so is manipulative sociopathy, and unfathomable horror. What does it all add up to, on a human level? For these characters, all of this ambient communication adds up to their having have no idea who they are, or how they should construct meaning. They spend their days isolated, in fantasies that leave them empty: elaborate conspiracy theories that make no attempt to accommodate reality; self-aggrandizing images that don’t match up with what they actually do; arbitrary fixations that give them a temporary sense of direction.
Drnaso slows his storytelling down to a naturalistic crawl, drawing out mundane events into dozens of panels, dragging the lonely minutiae our days in front of us. Even his art style, with rounded shapes, flat coloring, and little detail, adds to this sense of a featureless physical realm we inhabit in modern life, made up of cheap materials, cheap lighting, and cheap food. Against this backdrop, the occasional staccato story beat is a breath of fresh air—even when that story is a wildly preposterous conspiracy theory. Especially when it is. The speculations coming out of the tinny speakers are complete bullshit, but they also might be more reassuring to a heart in pain than sterile and disposable reality.
Madman: the Oddity Odyssey by Michael Allred
This was one of my favorite comics in the 90s, and I was delighted to find that it more than holds up!
What is striking at first is how thin the macro-level storytelling is. Allred’s world is all 1950s pulp style and no substance, populated by thinly drawn characters. Outside of lead character Frank Einstein, AKA Madman, no one has any depth, no situation has real character stakes, nothing that happens matters.
But the micro storytelling—the storytelling that proceeds panel to panel, within panels, and with Allred’s line—is delightful. The panels are focused entirely on Madman’s panache, his intense loyalty and his decency, but also on his capacity for intense violence. It doesn’t seem like this mix of elements should work, but Allred’s love for this character comes through in every thickly inked line, and somehow the experience is wonderful.
Daredevil: Lone Stranger by Ann Nocenti and John Romita Jr.
This collects a story arc written by one of my favorite comics writers and drawn by one of my favorite comics artists, which followed Daredevil’s most beloved run, by writer/aritst Frank Miller.
What’s most striking to me is the patience of these stories. Daredevil is experiencing a crisis of purpose, and Ann Nocenti stretches that journey, and his return to a sense of self-acceptance, across a whole period of his life. Meanwhile, he does not shirk his superhero duties, but he also isn’t finding any pleasure in them. In one story, Daredevil is in a state of barely contained trauma, and dispatches dozens of vicious demons without an ounce of personal engagement in the task. He never speaks or shows a shred of emotion in the issue, until, in the final two panels, he sits down at a bar in his beloved Hell’s Kitchen, sips a beer, and only then cracks a smile.
In another story, he is slowly seduced by a woman at the bar stool next to him, who turns out to be Mephisto, the devil. All the while, in Nocenti’s unmistakable writing, the human-scale personal dramas of New York play out in the background. Daredevil’s world has always been firmly rooted in the sidewalks and streets of New York, more so than any other prominent super-hero, save maybe Spider-Man—though even Spider-Man doesn’t spend Christmas nursing his sorrows in a beer and making out with a fellow patron. Spider-Man isn’t canonically Jewish, though his “oy vey” handwringing is very much the product of his Jewish creators’ outlook on New York. But Daredevil was co-created by Cambridge, MA native Bill Everett, and his is a Boston brahmin’s New York, a people he works for but is not of, with a Catholic sense of redemption. When Spider-Man makes a mistake, it’s a guilt-inducing screw-up; when Daredevil does, it’s a sin.
I went to my first comic convention this past year, and got to ask legendary Marvel editor Jim Shooter about various industry figures—including writer Ann Nocenti. He told me that one of the first pieces of Nocenti’s writing he ever saw was a script for Marvel’s Smurfs comic, which blew him away because it managed to find a meaningful, relatable drama in what Shooter assumed was only a shallow, hackneyed children’s property. (He said showed the script to Louise Simonson, one of the few women to penetrate Marvel’s boys’ club in the ‘80s, and she immediately pushed for Nocenti to take the reins of a major title.)
That imaginative spirit shines in several of these stories, especially one about an insane woman whose only chance at becoming whole is to eschew her lifelong quest to match society’s sexist ideals, and another about a demonic villain who is spontaneously birthed from a particular piece of land, because the land saw so much inhumane brutality, for so long, that it simply couldn’t absorb the blood anymore.
Guardian Devil (Daredevil Visionaries series) by Kevin Smith, Joe Quesada, and Jimmy Palmiotti
I really enjoy Kevin Smith’s comics writing—I liked his run on DC’s Starman, where he exhaled new bong smoke into a worn-out minor character. I’ve read some Daredevil in the past and liked it, though it’s taken me a while to get a clear sense of the character: what his flaws are, what his personal challenges are, and what makes a story particular to Daredevil and not other heroes. Reading this alongside Ann Nocenti’s “Lone Stranger” Daredevil arc helped me get clearer on the many themes that it, and this story, had in common.
Smith identifies an entry point to the character in Daredevil alter ego Matt Murdoch’s Christianity; he plays with Daredevil’s uncertainty that his violence is really always on the side of the angels. As a lawyer who represents indigent clients pro bono, Murdoch often wonders if he’s really making a dent in the world’s injustice. As Daredevil, who can take out a mugger but has never been able to dislodge the city’s high-level corruption, he wonders the same thing.
The story also incorporates Black Widow, and the relationship that Natasha and Matt have, as a former item with a long history of knowing each other’s warts, makes for a truly rich friendship. The same for Daredevil’s relationship with Spider-Man/Peter Parker, which makes me realize how little I’ve seen those kinds of friendships explored as actual friendships.
Daredevil also has a romantic drive that feels core to his character. He is drawn to women who are intense, strong, brilliant, and often loyal to someone, or something, else besides him; in a Catholic way, he wants to yearn for something he mustn’t have. Spider-Man is, at heart, a good person who made an immature mistake that led to his beloved uncle’s murder; he carries guilt for that, but it doesn’t eat away at him; he has found his balance. But Daredevil hasn’t found his; he can’t really be in balance, and the impossible Tetris of practicing law brilliantly while breaking the law violently makes these as much his enemy as they are his power.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Book 2 and Omnibus 2, by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird
These collections cover issues 4–15, plus several one-shots.
They don’t match the urgency and freshness of the first 3 issues, but they are still full of life. (And mercifully, Eastman and Laird keep their vague, orientalist take on Shintoism to a minimum.) These aren’t the kid-friendly Turtles we’re familiar with; these guys actually act like irresponsible teenagers by smashing things angrily, starting fistfights, and drinking.
The Department of Truth volume 1: Calling the End of the World by James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds
What if every single conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard of were true? That’s the premise—sort of—of this ambitious series. It’s a high-wire act, but James Tynion keeps finding new angles and staying ahead of me as a reader. He knows full well how fueled by hatred some conspiracy theories are, such as Pizzagate and QAnon. But he also knows how reassuring they can be. To a low-information citizen distressed about their power, the world might make more sense if DC politics were set up to hide a ring of deep state abusers. It would explain what’s wrong with our country. It would provide clear villains at whose feet to place the blame. And it would mean that people who feel overwhelmed and lost in the modern world have the chance to be heroes.
Through magic realism, Tynion is exploring the power of compelling stories to overwhelm—and essentially, replace—a reality that is mundane and too often seems meaningless.
I’m not crazy about this type of tightly expressionistic, painting-heavy art style, which was widely used at DC’s Vertigo imprint in the 90's. But for this book’s subject matter, it works.
Spider-Man: Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut by Roger Stern, John Romita Jr., Jim Mooney, Rick Leonardi, and others
Classic Spider-Man from the early 1980s. The central Juggernaut story is a bit low-stakes—the Juggernaut and Spidey have little actual motivation to fight—but this also includes Amazing Spider-Man issues 226 and 227, which feature the badass Black Cat in one of her greatest stories.
Spider-Man: Sinister Six by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Erik Larsen, and David Michelinie
This collection brings together the original 1960s introduction of the Sinister Six, a gang of Spider-Man’s worst enemies, with more modern updates on the group from the 1990s. I love how Marvel mixes old and new stories, even though the modern issues here wither in comparison to the originals.
It’s hard to beat the charm of the early Spider-Man comics. The first incarnation of the character was believably a teenager: immature, pathologically rude, irreverent to all. He’s a nerd who was picked on by bullies his whole life, always felt superior to them, and finally has the chance to turn the tables. He has an abiding sense of duty, but he’s also arrogant and resentful, fully ready to be an asshole if someone deserves it. Like the Marvel creative team at the time, he’s a real New Yorker, and uses New Yorker Yiddish words like “furshlugginer”. And uniquely, he could only be a New York superhero—Manhattan was the only place on earth in 1963 with enough skyscrapers crammed together to support web-slinging as a means of transportation.
But the modern era loses sight of Spider-Man’s prickly edges, both in the comics and in the films, where Spider-Men don’t have much swagger. The Erik Larson/Dave Michelinie stories at least keep some of the old scrappiness; their Spider-Man takes the bus, can’t get around New York harbor without a lift from a tugboat, and gets treated as a routine sight by the populace, whereas they’re dazzled by Iron Man.
One huge drawback is how Mary Jane Watson is made into a frustratingly one-dimensional target for male violence. She’s literally attacked two separate times by stalkers—though to Michelinie’s credit, she kicks their asses herself.
Uncanny X-Force Volume 1 by Rick Remender, Jerome Opeña and others
This is what X-Men comics are these days: visuals that are lush but inert, lots of hurtling bodies without much purpose, and an elaborate cast of heroes and villains who feel interchangeable.
One problem is that many of the characters are from alternate realities, and are treated like disposable pawns by writer Rick Remender. They have no chance to define themselves, or to make clear their motivations, before they are dispatched to make room for the next batch.
There’s one exception: Wolverine’s love for Jean Grey, who is dead in his timeline, but whom he meets in another. When Jean says she has to go back to her dystopian universe, likely to die in its pro-freedom rebellion, Wolverine drops his nonchalant exterior and begs her to stay. There’s no one to fight to resolve that problem, no villain to strike a pose against. I wish there were more scenarios like that in superhero comics.
Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
The motivation for this book is clear: the author grew up as the daughter of a prominent scholar of James Joyce, and learned much about Joyce—and about Joyce’s daughter Lucia. Like author Mary Talbot’s own father, James Joyce was oppressive and controlling of his daughter.
The resulting book switches back and forth between Lucia Joyce’s coming of age and Mary Talbot’s own, forming parallel lines of memoir and biography.
But from this intriguing beginning, it doesn’t feel like much is done with the central conceit. How were the fathers similar or different? How was Lucia’s oppression different from Mary’s? The comparison itself seems to just sit there. There is no attempt to place Mary and Lucia in conversation, even indirectly; what’s worse is that even after reading this book, I have no idea what either woman would say to they other, if there were one.
Beyonders books 1, 2, and 3 by Brandon Mull
My 11 year-old and I loved Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven series, which is brilliantly plotted but sometimes lacks depth. So I tried reading Beyonders with my other kid, who was 9 at the time.
Beyonders starts strong, introducing a rich cast of characters and setpieces, including the suspicious displacers, the quasi-immortal seedmen, the Blind King’s castle, and the prison paradise Harthenham. It is more mature and violent than Fablehaven, though not gratuitously so. As with Fablehaven, Mull’s strengths are in plotting and imagination, and less in character development; you learn little about the characters’ inner lives past cursory descriptions.
Book 2 adds some witchy powers to the mix, together with several spectacular fight scenes, and finally gives some attention to the underdeveloped female co-lead. But it loses steam towards the end, and Mull begins skipping erratically out of half-finished chapters and into later parts of the story. By Book 3, the whole project has lost steam, and my daughter and I put it down after 50 pages.
Book 1: Highly recommended. Book 2: Recommended. Book 3: Not recommended.
The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists’ Club by Bertrand Brinley
A bunch of unambiguously White boys somewhere in a Great Plains state get up to the sort of elaborate, technically complicated, harmless mischief that makes you sure they’ll grow up to be engineers and VPs for Westinghouse and the military and the like.
Mocking aside, these books, which are now forgotten but which were popular a few generations ago, have a great spirit of inventiveness and adventure. The boys pride themselves on applying careful planning and elbow grease to seemingly insurmountable problems, they value irreverence as much as duty, and they never punch down.
What’s also interesting to me is the worldview that underlies these stories, and the boys’ outlook on the world. These books were written in the 1960s about the 40s and 50s, which means these are baby boom kids, born into one of the world’s most powerful social classes in its most triumphant and optimistic moment. (They’re also, of course, on track to be drafted into the Vietnam War.) This was a time when White American culture had no qualms about the settlement of the West—and with the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans mostly a thing of the past, these boys in their understanding of “Indians” are juggling the dehumanizing propaganda that cleared the way for White settlement, with an exoticized narrative of bravery and self-sufficiency. The boys freely plunder cultural elements they think of as Native, giving each other “Indian names”; but they also communicate and cooperate with a local tribe directly and respectfully. Their co-opting of Native American culture, filtered through a heavy dose of stereotype and lumping all tribes together, has both elements of enabling genocide, and enabling coexistence.
As for the “mad scientist” elements, they are handled well. I wished the club had girls and people of color, and I wished for more explanation of their tech work, and I even wished for more failures on the road to their epic builds. There’s definitely an element of Star Trek engineering here, where a bit of jargon and fiddling is all it takes to, say, hack into an alien computer.
That said, there is some actual experimentation in a few of the chapters, where the club doesn’t know what the result will be, and is forced to communicate their scientific uncertainty to the public. The best story is one where the boys shoot model rockets into clouds to coax them to rain. When rain comes, the boys are heroes; when there isn’t rain or there’s too much rain, they are pariahs. And of course they themselves don’t actually know if they’ve made things better or worse. There’s a humility there, which is hard to find in this sort of story.
Space: Planets, Moons, Stars, and More! by Joe Rhatigan and Thomas Girard
A simple early-reader picture book. Full of intriguing information, presented clearly. Part of the “Step into Reading” series.
Exoplanets by Seymour Simon
Picture book for children, with lots of text. Readable and reasonably comprehensive, if a bit unfocused and monotonous.